Otavalo and Cotacachi: Ecuadorean Market Towns

Ecuador is obviously different from Colombia in many ways. The landscape immediately changed after the border from mountainous terrain to rolling hills. The climate is a lot drier, and thus browner, and there’s less sprawling coffee plantations and more farmland. Sheep, cattle, llamas, pigs, all sorts of wildlife with more flat land and sparser forests. Women stand in lines tilling the fields by hand or carrying bundles of sticks along the side of the road.
  Even though the currency of Ecuador is the US dollar, the dress is much less influenced by North American apparel. Many locals wear the traditional clothing of brightly coloured ponchos or capes, dark pants (long thick skirts for the women) and fedora hats. The women carry their children in swaddled blankets on their backs, and are almost always adorned with thick necklaces of gold and silver chains.

At nearly every stop the bus made, people selling cheap food or trinkets climbed on to sell their goods. Homemade potato chips, apples, chicken, nuts, water, icecream, you name it. The venders walk up and down the isle calling out the names of their goods in rapid succession. “helado helado helado helado!!” “papas papas papas!!!” “un dollar por seis; veinte cinco centavos!” The men or women stay on for a stop or two, then tell the driver to stop so they can jump onto another bus. You will never find yourself hungry on an Ecuadorean bus, that’s for sure!

On our first day in Quito we did very little. We grabbed lunch at a bar in the main square, checked out a park and ventured back to our hostel to wait for Diane to join us! Now that Hilary had gone home to Toronto, Diane agreed to join us for our trip around Ecuador and we were very excited! The three of us went for delicious Mexican food for dinner, then called it a night early to get ready for a long day trip to Otavalo in the morning.

Otavalo is a market town about 2 hours North of Quito. It is a wonderful little town with a plethora of street venders selling food and a beautiful craft market full of traditional Ecuadorean wares. The three of us got up early to start our day. We watched a very entertaining Jackie Chan movie in Spanish on the bus ride out and arrived in Otavalo by the early afternoon. Buses in Ecuador are incredibly cheap: about $1 for every hour of the trip. Such a far cry from Brazil, which are between 8 and 10 times the price!! So we were all happy to reach the town for the cost of a toonie!

The market was quiet on the Monday that we went, but had some great deals! There were tonnes of intricate, hand-carved silver pendants and earrings, wood carvings of native animals, hand held pipes, thick alpaca sweaters, brightly coloured paintings, and traditional blankets and scarves. We had a great time walking from stall to stall bargaining for the best price and checking out the handicrafts. In the end, Diane and I both bought sweaters and Adam got an alpaca blanket that was gorgeous! When we’d properly explored the market, we ventured back to the bus station to catch a bus to Cotacachi. I never would have known that this place existed had it not been for Cathy, who told me about the leather bags she had bought from there. Only 40 minutes and 20 cents from Otavalo, Cotacachi is even more quaint and beautiful! From what we saw, it was only several blocks squared: the bus station went only 2 places, there was one plaza with a church… and a million leather shops! The place smelled amazing, with real leather scents coming out of the stores. Jackets, purses, wallets, shoes! Each place had handmade leather wares for super cheap and many of the shop owners made their products right there in the store. We spent a good hour at least walking up and down two city blocks checking out all the leather in each store along the way. We got some great deals in the end and then made our three hour trek back to Otavalo and finally Quito. We had cheap eats at a local Ecuadorean restaurant of rice, chicken and lentils for $2.75 then back to our hostel for a few beers and games of pool.  Not a bad first day in Ecuador!

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Manizales: The Colombian Coffee Region

 

The 5 hour bus ride from Medellin to Manizales, although treacherously windy, is absolutely breathtaking! Colombia has by far the most beautiful landscape that I’ve seen in South America yet. Huge mountains and deep valleys of luscious green foliage make for an unreal road trip trough the countryside. Low hanging misty clouds filled some of the valleys, which made the mountains look as if they were floating in the sky when you looked over the cliff edge. The roads wind from mountain peak to mountain peak and back and forth along the steep summits. It makes for wonderful sights and stomach lurching rides. The bus drivers drive like they are formula one racecar drivers. They pass semis, bikes and cars at alarming speeds around blind corners and have no problem throwing bags and passengers in all directions in the back. I spent a lot of time looking out the front window trying not to get carsick. The only thing I could do was throw in my headphones and stare out at my impending doom: putting all my faith in our driver and crossing my fingers every time we rounded a bend.

The city of Manizales was a lot larger than I had expected. It is right in the heart of the coffee triangle of Colombia and sprawls across the side of a mountain for kilometers. Just to get to the centro from the bus station, we took a long gondola ride up over the city to the top of the massive hill. The view of the city is wonderful from such a height, and although the city itself isn’t beautiful to look at, the valley that it nestles into is a wonderful backdrop. 
We weren’t sure what Manizales really had to offer, so we decided to walk lengthwise along the top of the mountain from our hostel to the city center and back (a good 2 hour walk). Just as our guidebook had suggested, there wasn’t much to see. No beautiful plazas or ornate churches, very few lookout points, and overall just another city in my eyes. So we decided instead to go on a coffee crawl from one cafe to the next to find the best coffee in the area. Why not when you’re in one of the greatest coffee regions in the world! 
Colombia has just recently begun to serve high quality coffees within its country. Historically, Colombia would export close to 80% of its good coffee and keep the lower grade beans for itself. Luckily for us, however, many of the coffee shops in Manizales now offer delicious coffees for a reasonable price! We especially found this in our second cafe, where the servers were obvious connoisseurs of coffee themselves and described all the flavors and aromas to us before letting us smell the beans, then drink the coffee. The coffee was served with a small piece of dark chocolate, which was supposed to be eaten before each sip to bring out the best of the flavors. It was delicious! Definitely the best of our afternoon’s coffee crawl!

By the end of the afternoon I was buzzing with caffeine jitters. I am definitely not as skilled at coffee drinking as Adam, who had even more coffee than I did during the day and felt fine. But it was a great way to explore the city and an awesome introduction to the region.

 

The next morning, we set out early to a tour of a coffee plantation! Just 20 minutes outside of Manizales, and down a long windy dirt road, we arrived at the plantation. Immediately, we were given small cups of strong espresso coffee. The plantation kept reminding us to “drink as much coffee as possible” while on the tour, and the beverage was readily available at any given time.

Our guide started out by explaining the history of coffee and the logistics of coffee plantations in Colombia. Colombia differs from many regions that make coffee because of its close proximity to the equator and mountain range. The cloud system that moves up and down the Andes, actually gives Colombia two full rainy seasons (unlike most places in the world) and so, the area can produce twice as much coffee in one year than most places. The downside to this, however, is that the beans on the plant all grow at different times. Some beans are ripe in May, while others on the same plant are ripe two weeks, or two months later. This, combined with the steep mountain terrain that the coffee region exists on, means that all the coffee beans have to be picked by hand by many laborers. Every 2 weeks the coffee pickers will go out into the field to pick the beans; this is an extraordinary 20+ times a year that the beans are harvested. The beans then go through a large drying process; they are shucked from their original shells, searched through by hand for the perfect bean selection, and eventually packed into large sacks and shipped out of the country. The roasting process of the beans fascinated me. The temperature of the beans has to be so exact, just like the heat of the water and how long you should pour each espresso. The equation is so precise, it is amazing that the batches can come out tasting the same time and time again!

We had a wonderful half-day tour of the plantation, walking through the fields, picking our own beans to roast, and seeing first hand each step of the coffee making process. One of the cooler things I’ve done on the trip, the coffee plantation made me appreciate the great tasting coffees we so often take for granted in Canada. Once the tour was over, we sat down to an amazing Colombian soup dish of potatoes, vegetables, capers, avocado and chicken. It was delicious, although I can’t remember what the name of it was for the life of me. Then we made the trek back to the hostel and finally off to Cali!

Medellin: The Search for Pablo Escobar

In the 1980’s and 90’s, Medellin was considered one of the most dangerous cities in South America. It was home to drug lords such as Pablo Escobar, and its reputation was synonymous with big time drug cartels and violent crimes. Today however, Medellin has cleaned up its act, and is an incredibly welcoming city, with a busy downtown core and neighborhoods with character! The Poblado district, where we stayed, was one of the nicer neighbourhoods we’ve explored on this trip, in fact. The area was full of well kept, charming parks and loads of restaurants serving international and local cuisine.

 

On our one and only full day in Medellin we decided to explore as much as possible; we started with checking out Pablo Escobar’s grave. We took the metro to the designated stop and immediately realized that finding the cemetery would not be easy. The station was right in the middle of a busy neighborhood and no cemetery-esque areas were visible. Luckily we had all afternoon, so we just started to walk through the streets. After a while, we admitted we were lost and asked a little old lady where the “cementerio” was. She pointed up and down blocks, told us to turn left and then right and we’d find it. So we carried on. After stopping 4 times to ask directions, and each time getting a completely different answer, we found it! A huge white building with a statue of Jesus on the cross was right in the center of the place.  From there, thousands of plaques with cremated remains spread outwards in a giant maze. It was going to be a daunting task finding the right grave.

Unfortunately, as we went to open the gate, we found a big lock on the outside. Next to the gate was a sign that read: “closed from 12:00 to 14:00”. We looked at Adam’s watch… It was 12:04. Fantastic. So we grabbed a couple drinks at a local bar and waited out the two-hour siesta break.

As soon as the cemetery opened we were in the gates! The place was a little overwhelming with the number of names, and there was no touristy indication that Pablo Escobar’s grave was the center of attention. So we walked and read, walked and read and after way too long searching, we came across two guys that worked there. We asked them if they could help us find Pablo Escobar. They looked at us like we were crazy, then the younger guy perked up. “Pablo!!” he laughed hysterically, “you are in the wrong cemetery my friends! You are looking for the big one. It’s huge, with a big building and big monument!” Seriously? We’d been sitting around for over 2 hours waiting for this cemetery to open and all for nothing?  So even with directions we decided to take a cab; we specifically asked for Pablo Escobar INSTEAD of cemetery, and the driver took us right there. So much simpler for a 2 dollar cab ride!

Our sad faces when we realize we’re at the wrong cemetery.

 

The taxi driver pointed over to a large building across the cemetery and sent us on our way. We felt so stupid. The place was huge! And the building that he pointed to had a tonne of cars, a bus and people milling around. Obviously it would be a tourist destination, and not a desolate old cemetery in the middle of the city! So we walked toward the building determined to take a photo and get on with our day of sightseeing (now that we were so far behind on our day).

Stoked to have finally found it!

So we walked into the building like the biggest tourists ever: cameras out, backpacks on, ready to throw elbows through the crowd to get a picture and get out. We smiled at a security guard on the way in the building and he looked at us strangely before smiling back. Then we moved our way through a group of people into a room that everyone was staring into. When we walked into the room, we walked STRAIGHT into the middle of an open casket funeral that was going on. The dead man’s wife was wailing over the casket and about 90% of the people in the room were crying: then there was Adam and I. The only gringos in the whole area, who just pushed through a grieving family with our cameras out, determined to snap some shots. I went so red, and the ridiculousness of what just happened made me want to laugh out loud: although I’m sure that would have made things worse. So we hightailed it right back out of the funeral and back to the front door with the security guard. “Pablo Escobar?” we asked. He just shook his head, smiled a bit at us, and then led us to a very modest sized family grave on the backside of the building. How MORTIFYING! 
It took us a total of three minutes to take a photo, check it off our tourist list and head back towards the metro…3 and a half hours later. Fail.


The downtown core of Medellin, our next destination, had a great ambience. Street venders lined the main street for block after block selling their goods: pirated dvd’s, music, clothing, trinkets and street food among many others. We walked the main drag for a good stretch before coming across a beautiful plaza. The city itself is so much more beautiful than Bogotá, and the vibe is both livelier and warmer. Later in the evening, we asked a man for directions to a restaurant. When he realized that he’d given us the wrong directions to the place he left his shop, and ran down 5 blocks to find us and let us know the right way. It’s unfortunate that Colombia, and in particular Medellin, has such a bad reputation, because the people are so lovely and accommodating. All throughout the country we were surprised by how friendly and helpful all the locals were to us! I suppose that’s why Colombia’s new tourist tagline is “The most dangerous part of Colombia, is not wanting to leave”. And I believe it!

Bogota and The Salt Cathedral

Our flight to Bogotá left at 3:58am from Manaus, had a 45 min layover in Panama City, and finally arrived in Colombia just after 9am local time. I’m pretty sure we were sleepwalking to our hostel from the lack of sleep we’d had. Short naps, no longer than 30 min on each flight, 3 hours the evening before, 2 hours Thursday, and 6 DAYS in an uncomfortable hammock before that. All we wanted to do when we arrived in Bogotá was go to bed! When we arrived about 10am, it was still 2 hours to check in. We passed the time staring at a wall until we were finally allowed to crash in our room for a couple more hours.

We took it pretty easy our first day. Hung out drinking coffee at a local cafe, then walked around the city, checking out its bustling streets (with lots of crazy homeless people). One huge difference in Bogotá was its temperature. It was absolutely freezing (If the freezing temperature was 10 degrees Celsius)! The city is at such a high altitude, that even the sunshine during the day is several degrees cooler than we have been acclimatized to. Both of us bought a pair of jeans, and I spent two days wearing three layers of shirts.

After a good night’s sleep it was time to do some sightseeing. We went up the cable cars to the Cerro de Monserrate, which is a lookout over the whole of Bogotá. The city is mostly just urban sprawl for as far as the eye can see, but the mountains on the other side are gorgeous! At the top of the lookout there is a church, which was packed with people on the Sunday that we went. There are also a bunch of souvenir stores and a plethora of eateries for a snack or a full-fledged Colombian lunch!

Instead of spending our afternoon in museums, we decided to check out the Catedral de Sal in a city just outside Bogotá. A local Colombian we met in Sao Paulo a month earlier recommended the “salt cathedral” to us.  He had said it was one of his favourite things in Colombia. So we made the two-hour trek to Zapateria to check it out. Surprisingly, we figured out the bus system in Bogotá (which is a hundred times more difficult on Sundays) and ended up in Zapateria within a short couple hours. 
The city was absolutely beautiful. It sported large brown brick churches, bustling cobblestone plazas and had a rustic, small-town feel. Zapateria is nestled in a little valley, with gorgeous green mountains towering over it – an idyllic little getaway from Bogota’s much less aesthetic surroundings.

The Catedral de Sal is an underground system of tunnels that have been designed into a church that stretches over a huge space. The walls of the tunnels are covered in salt deposits that have built up over the years, thus the name “the salt cathedral”. Our tour group was entirely in Spanish, and with the speed that our guide was talking, combined with his loud, inaudible microphone, it was almost impossible to understand what was going on. I picked up some dates – like 80 years and 6 years, but have no idea what they referred to. So Adam and I ditched the tour and explored the place on our own.

The cathedral was a huge labyrinth of passageways that led to large, stone-carved crosses and statues of religious icons.  These “points of interest” were spectacularly lit up in changing colours of glowing light. Bright red one second, then the statue transforms into a softer green or electric blue. The place was so surreal; one moment everything is shrouded in the darkness of the cave, then all of a sudden, larger than life carvings glow into focus.

Most of the crosses that we’re scattered about the cathedral were about 6 to 10 ft high, but as you wound your way down to the main cavern, there was a huge display with an altar, a few larger than life statues and a cross that stood about 60ft high. Pews were lined up and the place very well could be used as a functioning church: although without our guide there to explain, I really have no idea. We spent at least an hour exploring the strange underground cathedral before finally climbing back up to the daylight and finding our way home.

The next morning we set out on a 12-hour bus ride to Medellin. Just getting out of the city to the bus station was an ordeal. Our taxi took 20 minutes to make it only 6 blocks along the city center. The streets were completely crowded with buses. Big city buses, tour buses, mini buses (which seems to be the favoured mode of transportation around Bogotá), but all of them were empty! The place was one huge gridlock traffic jam with hundreds of empty buses. I never saw one bus with more than 3 people on it. It was a strange sensation to say the least.

When we finally did catch our bus to Medellin, we were placed in special “gringo seats”. These were seats that were about 6 inches closer to the chairs in front than any other seats on the bus. Immediately the young guy in front of me reclined his seat back to its full potential, crushing my legs and essentially leaving his head in my lap. I had to spend the bus ride with my legs in Adams leg space, and his in the isle, because even with an upright seat it was impossible to have your legs in front of you. After 10 hours of this man stretching and pushing back on the seat, I thought I was going to murder him. I just wanted to rip off his little green hat and throw it off the bus!! It didn’t help that we lurched through windy mountain passes the entire 12 hours and I was in a motion sickness haze for the better part of the day. Luckily, the man arrived alive, and I am not wanted by the police for murder… But let me tell you, it was close!

Manaus: The Heart of the Amazon

We arrived in Manaus in the early afternoon and decided to team up with Hilary and Diane to find a good hostel. After walking through the port, we met Thomas: a charismatic native of Manaus with a great sense of humour.  Thomas recruits and refers tourists to his hostel and organizes their stay. Tours, places to eat, things to see, you name it, Thomas will help you organize it and then introduce you to 5 other people who have already done it. His grasp of the English language is impeccable, and he is exactly the kind of person we all wanted to meet upon arrival. Strangely enough, having recruiters swarm you at bus stations and ports is something I kind of miss from Asia, and it’s infinitely easier than walking around the city from hostel to hostel with a 15kg backpack on!

 

So just like that, we had a cozy place to stay, with a room just for the 4 of us, and were sitting down organizing tours within the hour. Sadly, Adam and I had only one full day to spend in Manaus, so we booked a day tour for the Friday and hoped to see as much of the city as possible! 
After we were hooked up with a cheap seafood dinner of local Amazonian fish, we were offered a free, private walking tour of the city from Thomas’ brother (or sister as he jokingly referred to him as).

 

The markets in Manaus are incredible. The less impressive fruit market was quite a sight to behold.  Truckloads of fruits and vegetables collected from the jungle, lay over huge wooden palates waiting to be bought.  A massive variety of tropical fruits and vegetables to choose from and a stack of bananas larger than I’ve ever witnessed!  Afterwards we walked over to the fish market.  The market was slowing down by the time we arrived in the evening, but at 5am, Manaus’ fish market explodes with people trying to get a deal on fish for the day. There are apparently over 2000 different species of fish to be found in Manaus, and the fish market is where you can get most of them.  Row upon row of stalls where fisherman slice up their catch and prepare the food for buyers.  Anyone can buy fish at the market, but it is particularly popular with restaurant owners buying their daily specials at the crack of dawn.

After the markets, we walked through the city checking out it’s main sights: the opera house, the university and the many beautiful plazas that are scattered throughout. I was amazed at how industrial and beautiful Manaus really is. It is a booming city with a very strong economy and is WAY larger than I would have imagined from a city in the middle of the jungle. There are over 400 factories in Manaus, many of them big name car companies and appliances. It’s even one of the largest microwave distributors in the world. Random. Manaus is a city where people from all over Brazil come to get work. It has such a huge workforce that there are always places to find a job. Before Southeast Asia began its rubber production, Manaus was the largest rubber exporter in the world. The rubber production made for an extremely wealthy economy. The place was so rich, that the women would have all their clothes shipped to Europe to get them CLEANED instead of doing it themselves, and the men would smoke cigarettes through dollar bills.  If only I could afford these luxuries!

 

When we arrived back at the hostel, Thomas had pitchers of caipirinhas waiting for us. It wasn’t long before we met a bunch of Colombians, Swedes and Spanish guys outside and joined them for drinks. We sat in patio furniture on the street and attempted to understand our trilingual conversations. We drank and sang Spanish songs like “La Bamba,” with the accompaniment of Juan-Carlos’ guitar, for what seemed like hours. Then we all headed out on the town till the wee hours of the morning!

 

When Adam’s alarm went off at 7:30am I was a zombie. We had a maximum of 3 hours of sleep, although no one really checked the time we finally fell asleep, so it could have been less. So excited for an 8 hour day tour of Manaus…
 not!  Turns out it was just Adam and I on the tour with a man that didn’t speak English. Not sure how we always end up on private tours, but it seems to be a trend for us in Brazil! I was in no condition to translate Portuguese, but our tour was amazing nonetheless!

 

We took a boat out to the meeting of the rivers to start. This is where the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimoes converge to make the Amazon. Because of the amount of acid in the water, the Rio Negro is a very dark, almost black colour. Contrastingly, the Solimoes is a light brown, muddled hue. The acidity and temperature differences between the two rivers keeps them separated, and thus there is a very defined line where the waters meet that stretches for about 6km! We could actually feel the temperature differences as we traveled between the two on our boat.

As we were boating to our next destination, we FINALLY saw the elusive pink river dolphins! Adam has been talking about these pink dolphins since day 1 of our trip. They were on his trip’s bucket list before anything else in fact! So it was very exciting to see them in the wild. They are the only fresh water dolphins in the world and no one quite knows how they ended up in the Amazon. It is believed that perhaps they migrated into the river up to 15 million years ago! Their brains are 40% larger than a human’s and they are unique in that their neck bone is not fused with their spine, giving them a lot of mobility in their heads. The dolphins are a light grey colour with pink around their heads. A number of strange local legends surround the animals; it is said that the dolphins shift shapes in the night to impregnate women on land! We did spot a couple in the distance when we were on our 6-day trip, but seeing them up close was very cool!

 

When the dolphins swam out of view, we boated through a floating village that both survived and made a living off the river. Local fisherman caught pirarucu fish from the river and kept them in large tanks to sell them at a later date. The fish are massive!! They can get up to 180kilos and small ones are still a whopping 90kg. One of the fishermen tied small fish to a wooden pole and let us try to fish for them in the tank. They snapped at the fish, literally jumping out of the water to grab the food, but it was practically impossible to reel them in with the weight of them; however, for lunch afterwards, we got to eat the fish as part of our buffet. Which was fun, even though we didn’t catch one ourselves.

From there, we walked through the ecological park to the giant lily pads! Seems that everything is a little larger in the Amazon, and these lily pads were no exception. They got up to a couple diameters each, and were a beautiful display among the calm lake. 
 I couldn’t take enough photos of them if I’d tried!

Once we’d explored the park, and had some lunch, we visited one of the floating homes and met up with two children: a young boy about 10 and a girl no older than 5. The little girl clung onto a baby caiman, with it’s mouth tied shut, like it was her own little stuffed animal. She dragged it around without even thinking twice that she had a tiny dangerous animal swinging from her hands! Next to her, the young boy was bear hugging a sloth! The two hopped in our boat and offered us the animals to hold. Adam and I were ecstatic! The sloth was one of the most adorable things I’ve ever seen. I’ve only ever spotted the animals in trees, moving around slowly and clinging to a branch for dear life. But up close, they have the most ADORABLE faces.  They have big black eyes on top of a long face and a neck that turns around almost a full 360 degrees. And they are so light! I was expecting the sloth to be much heavier than it was, but it couldn’t have been more than a couple pounds. It’s long claws wrapped around me in a huge sloth hug and then the animal seemed content to just hang out in my lap. So cool! After Adam and I played with the sloth for quite some time, we checked out the caiman. It was so little (no longer than a foot and a half from head to tail) and had huge green eyes that stuck out of its head. It felt just like a snake, but looked a little more ferocious with its teeth sticking out under its tied jaw. It was surprisingly calm however, and allowed the little girl to grab a hold of it as if it was her childhood blanket. We paid the kids a couple Reais for their time before continuing on with the tour.

Our guide then took us on a boat ride THROUGH the jungle. Because of the flooded waters, the forest was no longer walkable; instead, we cruised through the tall trees and thick forest with unbelievable dexterity in our giant boat. I have NO idea how this man maneuvered through the trees that were at points no wider than a half inch on either side of the boat, but he did it! It was a beautiful trip and a very unique way of trekking through the area!
  Photos did NOT do this part of the trip justice.

 

Finally, we ended our trip with more piraña fishing! Although these pirañas were much less voracious than the ones in the Pantanal, we still managed to catch 7 of them and take them back to our guide’s friend for his dinner.  
By the time we arrived back at the hostel we were exhausted! Out for an early pizza dinner in front of the opera house, then off to bed… for a nap. We only got to sleep for another 3 hours before we were up at 1am to head to the airport! Another long night with no sleep ahead of us… Great!

Cruising down the Amazon River

We arrived at the docks at 7:30am. Our boat was scheduled to leave at noon, but the guidebook insisted we arrive a few hours early to claim the best spot on the boat: i.e. as far away from the engine and the bathrooms as possible. 
  Apart from two other Canadian girls that arrived at the same time as us, there were 4 people on the boat when we got there. Definitely could have slept in. Nonetheless, we set up our hammocks, got some breakfast and were overly enthusiastic to start lounging in out hammocks.

Meeting Hilary and Diane (the two Canadian girls) was great because it allowed us to switch off watching bags to get breakfast, shower, walk around etc for the next few days. The four of us got a prime location on the top deck and were ready to set sail by 8:15AM!
  By noon I had already made it through a good chunk of my book. The hammock was still comfortable, and we were anticipating leaving very shortly. Huge cargo trucks full of vegetables were unloading their goods on to the boat to distribute to settlements along the river as we went. We watched them pack on the boxes with surprising speed until at last the two trucks were empty. Then another two arrived.  When they had finished unloading, two more showed up; and after that, another… By five o’clock that evening they were still loading up their 7000th box of green tomatoes! I honestly have no idea how all that food fit onto our ship. We finally pulled away from the dock at 5:34PM.

 

Time in the hammock: 9hrs 19minutes

 

Time left to Manaus: 6 days!

Before the boat even left I was already starting my second book. I started reading Shantaram, which is a long, but an INCREDIBLE story – Nikki, thank you for the suggestion, I don’t know how I could have survived the trip without this book!  
Food was sold on the boat for a very reasonable price! However, the selection was the exact same every day, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Scrambled eggs in a bun for breakfast, and a rice, spaghetti, salad and steak plate or steak soup for lunch and dinner (In all fairness, they did offer the same meal with a chicken option for two of the nights… LUCKY!). I can’t believe I still enjoyed the food by the last day, although I was thrilled to switch up the meal when we hit Manaus.

Other than eating at designated mealtimes downstairs, there was very little else to do on the boat. Showers were small and just straight, cold, river water. They had two, long, uncomfortable wooden benches, a few scattered plastic chairs and a rooftop with a steel seating area. Thus, we spent a ridiculous amount of time in our hammocks. 
When I first imagined our river trip, all I could picture was “hot” and “mosquitoes“. I had looked up the temperature in January before I left and it was 44 degrees Celcius with 95% humidity… Oh my God. I pictured us sweating under a mosquito net, trying not to cover up skin, but avoiding malaria at the same time! In reality, it was the complete opposite. The movement of the boat kept all but the strongest mosquitoes away: that, and the fact that I have been taking my malaria pills, I have three types of bug spray, a mosquito net, long sleeves and pants (that are NOT black) and I have been taking propolis extract.  Propolis is a liquid that you drop into your water a few days before a mosquito zone, which you later sweat out and mosquitoes leave you alone – recommended to me by locals. I was set! I was amazed, as someone who draws mosquitoes to her anywhere within a 5km radius, that one, or a combination of these methods worked!  In fact, I managed to come out almost completely unscathed! I had a few bites that were only itchy for an hour and then gone! Hallelujah!

 

As well, it wasn’t hot! Actually, with the wind from the boat moving, and the cool air from each night’s thunderstorms, it was FREEZING! I wore pretty much everything I own AND wrapped myself in my hammock and still shivered through the night!! (Caitlin, it was very reminiscent of when you woke up at Oktoberfest and found me wearing 18 layers of clothing and huddled in my sleeping bag that was good to +10 degrees Celcius [ironically the same temperature that human skin is good to]).  Depressingly, each night on the boat seemed to be colder than the last. Adam even has a picture of me on the last morning, so bundled up in stuff, that only my nose was visible from under all the layers. I wore pants the ENTIRE trip, and long sleeves shirts went on as soon as the sun set (Yes, I do mean shirts, plural). I couldn’t believe it! We were only a couple hundred kilometers from the EQUATOR!! I don’t know what the temperature actually was, but I know we haven’t acclimatized that much!

By day 2 and a half on the boat I couldn’t feel my lower back. Having spent the better part of two days SOLELY in a hammock, it became an excruciating task just leaning over to pick things up off the ground. No position, sitting or lying down, was comfortable! I found myself doing stretches and yoga at least three times a day just to have a reasonably content two hours sitting back in my hammock! I flipped and flopped during the day: sitting up to read, crossing my legs, and then using a rolled up jacket as lumbar support.  In the night I rolled myself into a thousand different positions, trying desperately to forget the pain and cold and get some shuteye before the loudspeakers blared Brazilian dance remixes of American country songs and Michel Telo’s ever-popular “Nossa, Nossa” at 8AM.  By day 6 I think we were all thrilled to pack up our things and get into a real bed. Adam timed every second he was in his hammock and managed an impressive 89 hours 11 mins 7seconds out of a possible 126 hours. We figured I was about 15 hours more than that… Which is disgusting, and NOT recommended whatsoever!

However, apart from sleeping and eating, the river trip was WONDERFUL! We traveled through areas where the river was just a little wider than the boat we were in. The surrounding jungle was THICK! So much so I can’t imagine ever being able to explore it for the first time! There is thick, green foliage in every spare inch of the jungle, right up into the water. The plant life was unique, and varied and very, very green. The thing I found most fascinating, however, was the people that LIVE right on the river’s edge! Old wooden shacks are scattered along the length of the river where families survive off the land. They travel extensively by canoes that they paddle up and down the river, fishing for food. Little kids would paddle up along side our boat, tie themselves to the back, and climb aboard our ship. They ran around playing games, selling food and begging for food and gifts. I gave a couple of the little girls the Canadian pencils that I’d been carrying around for that exact purpose. One little girl looked LESS than enthused when I gave her a pencil instead of money and stared at me with a blank expression for over a minute. I finally took out my eyeliner sharpener and sharpened it for her, then scribbled in my book and gave it back. Her expression didn’t change a bit, so I waved her away. HOWEVER, when we were at lunch a little later, we saw her clutching the pencil like it was the winning prize at a fair. When we got back upstairs Diane had said that she and other kids came back asking for more pencils to have. So I guess they were happy with them in the end!

At other parts of the trip, you could hardly see the other side of the river it was so wide! We even came across a huge cruise ship that did a two-week circuit from the Dominican, down the length of the Amazon to Manaus. It shocked me that such a large ship could even fit through the channels, it obviously had to have taken another route. But wide or narrow, the river was beautiful. I couldn’t get over the fact that we were actually ON the Amazon River, and floating up the entire length of it! On the second day, after watching all the native kids row around on the river from their little huts, I turned to Adam and exclaimed that this was one of the coolest things I’ve done in all my travels! Just seeing how life works in the jungle is eye opening and surreal! On some flatter parts of the jungle, a few families had even made small farms, with goats and cows and horses all penned up along the river edge. The houses were all on stilts, which would be necessary when the river floods in the rainy season, and people moved around on makeshift walkways in the air that connected houses to sheds and docks. Our boat stopped in several small settlements along the way to unload goods from Belem. Some of them very small, others, like Santarem, we’re surprisingly developed for such a remote place in the middle of the jungle. None of them were as advanced as Manaus however. Our final destination was a huge city, right in the middle of absolutely nowhere! Manaus has become the hub of the Amazon jungle, and I think we were all shocked at how developed it was when we pulled up in our boat six days after leaving our port in Belem!

Belem: Detox Days

Adam is pumped to finally be at the Amazon River

To be honest, we did nothing in Belem. We desperately needed to sleep and detox after Carnaval, and quickly got comfortable lounging around our hostel.  Soon, even the most menial tasks were overwhelming. Originally, we were supposed to spend 24 hours in the city.  It was going to be a quick stopover before we booked hammock space on a cargo boat and cruised the length of the Amazon River from Belem to Manaus.  When we arrived, however, we found out that a brand new boat was sailing for Manaus this upcoming Saturday.  The lady ensured us it would be very nice and, not being in much of a hurry, we decided to hang around for 4 days.

 

Each day we came up with a task to complete. Groceries. Laundry. Buy hammock. After we completed one task, we felt accomplished and could spend the morning and the evening catching up on reading.  So that’s what we did. 
Our mornings were filled with LOTS of coffee drinking and writing; then, each afternoon we spent a little time at the market.

Belem’s market is THE largest open aired market in all of South America! It runs along the riverfront and holds just about everything you can imagine.  To begin with, there are rows upon rows of clothing: sweatshirts, t-shirts, football jerseys, bathing suits and the such.  Then Hammocks.  Hammocks are a very popular commodity in Brazil is seems, and Belem’s market had colourful, hand-woven hammocks strung up all throughout the stands. After that there were crafts, and trinkets, and carvings, and toys.  Then finally the food began!  Hundreds of cheap eateries all packed together in one area.  Each sold a version of fish and meat with the usual rice, spaghetti, beans and salad.  They had wooden stools to sit on, and one, very reasonable, price for everything (we paid a little less than $3US for a massive plate of food that neither of us could finish).  After the eateries were vegetable markets. Huge pallets of tomatoes, peppers, onions, and MANY things I’d never even seen before.  I’m assuming these were local to the area, and, with one of the most diverse ecosystem’s on Earth at your fingertips, I’m sure there were an endless number of unique foods sold there. After the fruits and vegetables, venders sold hundreds of little vials of liquids all labeled in Portuguese. It wasn’t until I looked in our guidebook later that we realized they were extracts from plants found in the Amazon jungle. They were natural healing remedies that the locals used, apparently, quite frequently! Bottles of coconut milk were sold, then the meat: live chickens, ducks, rabbits etc were in cages all waiting to be freshly picked for eating. Finally came the fish. The smell was horrid, as to be expected in an outdoor fish market, but the selection was incredible. Every day the fishermen go out early in the morning to fish, by 5am they are all back at port and selling their goods to the venders. It’s a hectic scene as people shout prices and throw around fish, trying to get the best deals (as we saw on our last morning when we passed on the bus early in the morning).

At the more “affluent” end of the market – which was enclosed and air-conditioned – there were loads of expensive buffets, small restaurants and a brewery. We found and acai berry shop and sat down for prawns and acai on our first day in Belem. We ended up sitting with a couple from California that we had literally met only 20 seconds earlier. They heard us speaking English, asked us where we were from, and we asked them to join us for lunch. Afterwards, we remarked how different things can be when you travel. I HIGHLY doubt I would invite a random couple for lunch on the sole fact that they speak the same language as me back in Vancouver! But it’s such a normal thing to befriend someone instantly when you are in a different country.

 

 

We all loved the acai. It is actually everywhere you turn in Brazil, so I’m amazed it took us this long to try it. At this place they sold it in litres; it comes out in a thick dark purple liquid that has a similar consistency to yogurt. It has a fairly bitter taste alone, and will stain your teeth purple in an instant, but, after adding a little sugar and tapioca, the stuff was delicious! Not to mention, it’s considered the super berry of the world with all the supposed health benefits it provides. We’ve had it several times since in Brazil, and I’ll be on the look out in Vancouver when I’m back!

 

Our lazy few days were easily pushed along by the weather. Although it was hot and muggy during the afternoon, by about 5 o’clock everyday the rains came in. I suppose that’s why the Amazon is considered a rainforest.  But these were not just normal rains; these were torrential thunderstorms that boomed across the city for a few hours each evening.  I have never heard thunder this loud before. The rain bucketed down in waterfalls all across the city and even within our hostel walls I jumped with every clash of thunder. The storm lasted just a few hours, then calmed down around 9 or 10. So we spent that time watching movies and playing cards: a far better alternative to bearing the storm outdoors!

 

When Saturday arrived it was time for the boat! We were up at a ridiculous hour of the morning (first from a man wailing in the halls of the hostel at 3am, and then from our alarm a couple hours later) to set up our spot on the boat and trek up the entire length of the Amazon proper!

Salvador: Carnaval Part 2

The next day we had plans to meet up with Katelynn and Scott, the Canadian couple I had met on the Sugar Loaf tour in Rio. They had rented an apartment in the Barra district for 10 days and invited us to dinner and pre-drinks at their place before the parade. We were in charge of caipirinhas and beer while they provided the dinner (although we definitely got the better end of the deal considering booze was cheap and the meal they made us was out of this WORLD).

 

Google map said it was 5.2 km from our place to theirs. 1 hour 6 min walk, or a 20ish min cab ride. So we grabbed a cab at 6:30, and figured we’d be early for our 7:00 meet time.  Then we hit Carnaval traffic… An HOUR and TEN minutes later we were dropped off on a street NEAR their place. It then took us a lot longer to find their unlabelled “Palmieras” street, which made us over an hour late to their place.  Fail.

 

Their apartment was wonderful: a big kitchen, two bedrooms, two bathrooms and an adorable living room. Music was already on, hor’deurves of meat and smoked cheeses were on the table, food was in the oven and icy beers were cracked. 
We caught up on our trips and adventures and made the most wonderful caipirinhas throughout the evening (To see how to make perfect Caipirinha’s, check out Scott and Caitlin’s “how to” video blog).  For dinner they had made an extravagant Brazilian meal: marinated beef with lots of vegetables, fried potato wedges (actually some special Brazilian potato that I can’t remember the name of), cooked beats, and a homemade salad with loads of cilantro. It was UNREAL. Scott is an excellent cook, and he and Katelynn obviously love to entertain. Which worked perfectly, because Adam and I loved every bit of it!

 

Once dinner was over, it was time for the parade!

 Carnaval Salvador is very different from Rio. Rio is about the spectacle, the performance, the elaborate outfits and lavish floats. Salvador is about the dancing, the music and the party. Where in Rio people party in the blocos or pay money to sit in the Sambadrome, in Salvador the party IS the parade. It’s the “crazy” Carnaval, as people here have been referring to it. It’s considered THE largest street party ON EARTH, and even after Stampede in Calgary, Full Moon in Thailand, Oktoberfest in Munich, Guinness’s 250’s Birthday in Dublin and every other crazy festival I’ve been to over the years, I wasn’t prepared for Salvador.  Yet, it lived up to every one of my expectations!

 

There are approximately 5 million partying for Carnaval in the city. That is twice the size of Salvador’s usual 2.5 million people. The Barra district holds the larger of the two parades in the city. It starts from the lighthouse and stretches for kilometers along the main drag right along the water.  The four of us
 came around the corner from the apartment and faced MAYHEM. Millions of people, in a crowd tighter than the craziest moshpit, filled the street and sidewalk; bodies took up every inch of space.  Massive trucks with bands playing on top of them and people dancing, slowly inched down the road in procession. Speakers on all sides of the trucks were massive 10ft amps or sub woofers that blasted deafening music out to the crowd.

 

Each float had a specific t-shirt that you could buy and subsequently be allowed within the roped off section. Around each float they had probably 50 or 60 people who’s job was to hold a rope to section off a “safer” place to dance. 
The four of us were not, by any means, limiting ourselves to a single float. We danced along with the crowds, imitating their moves, or making up our own, until we got bored, then we ran ahead to the next float and started again. Let me tell you, Brazilians can DANCE! Even the performers had dancers that could shake their ass for hours without tiring. At one point we even grabbed two random girls and made them teach us how to dance like the locals. I’m not sure we got it in the end, but they laughed and gave us the thumbs up that we were making progress. 
As Katelynn pointed out, it takes a lot of practice to dance AND move forward at the same time; of course, she is a dancer and got it perfectly, but for us more challenged folk, it took a lot of focus and a lot more beers to get the rhythm.

 

We moved along through the floats all through the night dancing to music. On one side of the street there were stands high above the ground. These were boxes for the VIP’s that paid money to drink for free and watch the performers from eye-level. We made it our mission to be at eye-level as well, so on one of the floats, Scott bribed a security guard with a beer who then let me climb up the ladder on the side of the truck. I got to the top of the float and overlooked the hoards of people below. Millions stretched for as far as you could see. I danced up a storm with some random girl next to me then eventually turned and saw another security guard with his arms crossed, shaking his head at me.  Busted.  I laughed sheepishly and he smiled before taking me down the stairs and booting me out of the side of the float. I didn’t care: MISSION COMPLETE! I partied on top of a float at Carnival! Bucket list, check!  And we all cheered about it before running down to the next float.

 

The place was madness. Men and women held large Styrofoam coolers full of beer: 3 or 4 beers for 5reais ($2.50). Street meat was sold for pennies, and food was everywhere you turned. Shaking empty beer cans with the tabs rattling inside meant beer girls were near to sell Skol, Brahma or Shin. People, men mostly, avoided the wretched port-o-potties and peed in the streets. The place was smelly, overwhelming, crazy and wonderful all at the same time! There’s really no other way to describe it.

When we finally got tired, we realized we had danced the entire length of the parade. We fought back against the crowd for about an hour before reaching the apartment. It was 6AM. Oh my God! The party outside was still in full force and it was 6AM! Adam and I crashed at the apartment, not having the strength to make it home, and I didn’t move until 10:00AM when I was woken by a party upstairs.  

By 1:00 that afternoon we were ready to face the world again. We decided to head to the beach and check out the surf; a quiet activity for the daytime.  However, when we got down to the main road by the beach, what did we find? The parade!!! It absolutely NEVER stops! I had heard that the parade went from 5pm to 5am (which is crazy enough), but no! It goes from 5pm to 5am then continues from 5am to 5pm again: 24 hours a day, for the entire week. And people were dancing, and drinking and crowded together, singing to the music just like the night before. So we joined them…

 

At one point we walked by a float that was so loud I thought my head was going to explode. The bass was beyond anything I’ve ever witnessed. My chest was vibrating so much I could hardly breathe. Adam held up his water bottle and it was like the scene in Jurrasic Park where the water vibrated on the dashboard… Except to the equivalent of 100 T-Rex’s.
  I don’t know how people don’t go deaf during this week long event!

 

We kept walking until we found the beginning of the parade at Campo Grande. The people were in full party mode, and we joined them with eager enthusiasm. We stood on the sidewalk and danced with the performers as the parade crawled along. Then it began to rain, and the people embraced it. We all danced harder as the rain poured down and soaked us all. It cooled everyone off from the heat of the day and refreshed our tired bodies. We danced in the raid with 10s of thousands of people until all of a sudden it was 6:30 again. We all hit a wall at the same time. Standing alone was an impossible task.  We walked back to the apartment and then Adam and I cabbed back to our favela. Definitely called it an early night.

 

Monday was our last day in Salvador. Not quite sure how four days had passed so quickly, but there we were. We decided to take it easy; we flew out at half past midnight and had already arranged for transportation that evening. We agreed that our last day we would take some photos, as we hadn’t dared take our cameras with us any other day (sorry about the lack of photo evidence from this part of the trip), spend some time at our favourite Internet cafe and then end our trip with a fancy seafood dinner: the prawns in Salvador are supposed to be second to none. And we did do that… for a while.

 

We walked the Pelo district for a while and checked out a wonderful craft market at the bottom of the elevator.  We took a mid afternoon break and shared a snack and beer on the patio of a restaurant overlooking the ocean, and then set up camp in an Internet cafe. We both sipped on coffee; Adam wrote emails and caught up on the financial news in the world while I discovered my newfound love for the game “Animals vs. Zombies” on my iPod.

But then, the parade went by.  That irresistible samba music and rhythmic drumming floated past us: the dancing and singing throng of people that you can’t help but join. We grabbed a beer each and watched. Then we started dancing on the spot. Then we saw a truck that played music we liked and chased it down.
  Before we knew it, it was dinner time and we were 4kms from our restaurant. We had bought one too many Brahmas, and Adam had been propositioned by several too many cross-dressing men. All in all, it was time to go.  We pushed through the crowds, dancing all the while, and made it back the Pelorinho in record time.

 

From the doorway of the internet cafe

The Pelo district, mid afternoon on the final day of Carnaval

We then sat down to the best seafood dinner I have had in a long time! Yes, this is another lengthy description of delicious food. We started with a baguette of garlic bread and a surprisingly tasty Chardonnay. We then ordered the “tropical style” prawns, which were prawns cooked in a pineapple cream sauce, inside a hollowed out pineapple half. A delicious white cheese was broiled on top, and then sliced tomatoes on top of that. It was served with a side of yellow curried rice with chunks of pineapple in it. It was absolutely to die for! Afterwards, we had a light chocolate mousse and little coconut cakes for dessert. I promise you we don’t spoil ourselves often with dinners out (I have 400 stale/eaten sandwiches that can attest to that) but when we do, it’s awesome!

After dinner we rounded up, caught our flight and got into Salvador at 2am local time (3am ours). We had finally made it to the mouth of the mighty Amazon!!!

Me, trying to find a comfortable way to sleep on a plane…

Again I am unsuccessful… at least Adam finds my misery entertaining!

Salvador: Carnaval Part 1

Our first day in Salvador was the exact opposite to what I had imagined. First of all, our bus was on time; actually, it was 3 and a half minutes early; neither of us could believe it. By the time we figured out the bus system, it was after 6pm and we were in full-fledged Carnaval traffic. An hour and a half later – with the help of a woman who literally chased down the bus when we missed our stop and told the driver that “the stupid gringos didn’t know where to get off” – we made it to the edge of the Pelorinho.

As we stepped off the bus, we were faced with was a giant outdoor elevator that rose above the city. The woman motioned for us to get on.  We were unsure what was happening, but had little other ideas of our own, so we followed her lead. Up we went, about 30 stories above ground, and the doors opened out, miraculously, onto the Centro.  It was madness. People were everywhere! Dressed up in strange costumes, men in drag, people selling beers, necklaces, street food, you name it. The noise was insane, drums and samba music blared through the streets; the place was lively and fun and people of all ages danced uninhibitedly through the crowds. This was the Placa de Se: a large plaza in the Pelo district that the buses no longer run to because of Carnaval.

Looking down at the elevator from the Placa del Se

Our directions to the hostel were simple:  “bus to the Placa de Se, then from there take a taxi to the hostel”. The problem was, the entire Pelo district was closed to vehicles for the parade. Additionally, the Lonely Planet map ONLY showed the Pelo, and our hostel was off the map by just a few blocks. What I remember from looking at the map when I booked in OCTOBER (5 months earlier) was that we were North. That is all: just North. So we headed in that direction, backpacks and all, through the throngs of people. We stopped at a random hotel to see if they knew directions. They had never heard of it, tried calling with no answer, but let us use the wifi so I could track where we were on my IPod. According to my GPS, we were 6 blocks from the hostel; so we began walking.

Now let me tell you how I booked this hostel. In the beginning of October, I started looking up places to stay. Almost EVERYWHERE required 7 nights minimum at about $100US a night: even just to sleep in a hammock on the roof was $95/night and you had to bring your own hammock. I managed to find the Hostel Barroco for $67/night with NO minimum stay! What a deal! The only downside I could see was that it was a 5 minute walk from the Pelo, but, anything that wasn’t directly on the parade route seemed like a bonus to me, and the photos looked lovely, so I booked it! What could go wrong…

We walked to the edge of the Pelo and all the crowds stopped. We were only 3 blocks away and found ourselves standing at the foot of a hill, with a military police station across the street, staring up into the alleyway of a favela. There were no lights and no cars, just some shady looking characters sitting in the shadows drinking and smoking. We both looked at each other and shook our heads.  Nope, not walking up there.  Luckily, a cab drove by and we hailed it down. We passed him the address and he shook his head.  So I showed him on my GPS where it was. He pointed up the hill and we nodded.

“No” he said.

“It’s just a couple blocks,” we said, “can you take us?”

“No. Walk, or find another taxi” and he kicked us out.  So there we were, just standing there with all our backpacker getup and not knowing what to do.

For those of you that haven’t been watching the news in Salvador, you should note that 2/3 of the police force has been on strike since January 31st. By February 10th, only 11 days later, there were already over 150 murders in the city of Salvador alone.  The police never came back for Carnaval; however, the government did bring in the military to oversee events, and their presence was everywhere along parade routes. Not that ANY of these murders were random acts of violence on tourists, but these current events were in the back of our minds while we were standing there.

After much debate, and seeing no other route on the map, we decided to chance the walk. 3 blocks. That’s all we had to go. Before we even made it a block an a half a young man was calling at us.

“Gringos!”

We ignored him.

“Gringos, go back to the Pelorinho, it’s dangerous here.”

We kept walking…

Then he got up and ran towards us, “Amigos, please, go get a pousada in the Pelo!”

“We already have a pousada,” I explain, “and it’s up here!” Adam handed him the address; he looked at it strangely.

“Bob!” he yelled down the street “Bobby, come here!” another young guy came towards us. They chat about the address then stop a third man walking down the street. After a little more confusion the third man looks at us

“The German!” he exclaims

“Yes!” I say, ” the owner is from Germany”
 Ahh yes, they know it. So the first guy motions for us to follow him and Bob.

“I’ll show you there” he says.

We hesitated.

We have no idea if they are taking us in the right direction, but we also figure going alone might be worse. So, reluctantly, we follow these two guys into the favela. 
The first guy introduces himself to Adam,

“I’m Anton, This is Bob. You know, like Bob Marley?” They both giggle, and Bob kind of does look like a young Bob Marley but with shorter hair. The two guys are probably in their mid to late 20s, with jet black skin and glowing white smiles. Anton is tall and slender, Bob is about 5’8″ and has a stockier frame.
  “It is dangerous here in the favela” Anton says “there is another route on the other side, go that way when you go back to the Pelo”

(As a side note, I’d like to mention that neither Anton, nor Bob, nor anyone we’ve met so far in this story speak a SINGLE word of English. I jumped from knowing “hello” and “thank you” in Portuguese, to being a full-fledged translator for Adam in about 12 hours. Not sure how.)

Anyways, sure enough, 3 blocks later we are led right to our hostel! Thank God! We thank the guys, and head to reception. We are shown our room, and ask where we can get some dinner. The receptionist points down the street, then leaves. So after washing up, we head out in search of food.

Not two blocks down the road we hear “Amigos!” It’s Anton. He is body painting some local women for Carnaval (which we later find out is his job). He introduces us to the owner of the cafe he is at, who goes out of his way to make us whatever food he can find. Anton joins us for a bit and asks us if we are going dancing in the parade tonight. We say yes and he offers to take us down to the Pelo. So after dinner, he and Bob take us back through the favela. On the way down they explain some of the “history”.

“You see this house?” we looked up at a dilapidated and gutted old concrete building with a 7ft hole in the side of it. “That was a drug house. You know, crack, cocaine, crystal meth? Ya, it exploded just a couple months ago.” Hmmm, safe neighborhood.

Then we all stopped at Anton’s house. It was a single room with a bed, a tv, and a makeshift kitchen. He introduced us to his mother, his neighbour and even his little puppy dog. From that point on, we were introduced to nearly EVERY person in the favela. Shop owners, people walking down the street, friends of theirs hanging out on the side of the road. “These are my amigos from Canada!” everyone was incredibly friendly and interested in us. We smiled, shook hands, “nice to meet yous” all around. They would chime in with the occasional English word and look pretty proud that they got to use it. Anton explained that favelas were dangerous places for outsiders. At any time, someone could easily rob us, or pull a gun on us; however, the favela works as a community. Everyone knows everyone else’s families and friends, and they look out for each other. Anton had lived in the favela since he was a little boy, people knew and trusted him. Because he had just introduced us to everyone as his friends, we were now part of the community, and no one would harm us: and we found, for the next three days, that we were met with many smiles and “Bom Dia’s” from the people.

So Anton and Bob took us down to the Pelo and began to give us the most amazing tour of Salvador. We met all the shop owners and artists, and saw beautiful old churches on off-beaten tracks. They explained the history while I translated as best I could to Adam. Occasionally they would ask what the English translation for a word was and it usually ended in laughter at how crazy the word sounded in our language: “eat,” “cheers,” “walk” and “thief” were not only particularly hard to pronounce, but also giggle worthy in their minds.

Anton explained how the Pelo district is the historical center where slave ships from Africa first stopped. Right in the middle of the Placa de Se, where people danced and sang for Carnaval, was where church officials ordered hundreds of black slaves hung, or their heads stomped to death on the sidewalk. They pointed out the traditional African garb that still influences Bahian dress, and how the drum beats in the parade music differ from the South of Brazil. Salvador, and the whole Bahian province, is clearly defined by its African heritage: dark skin, varied music, dress, spices in food, culture, everything.

During the tour they asked if we liked Reggae music. We both nodded and were led down a back street towards a bar. The scene was straight out of a movie. The doorman shook hands with bob and Anton who signaled that we were with them: and we all walked in. The bar was full of black-skinned Rastafarians, fully stereotyped with the long dreads; the colourful knit hats and the Bob Marley-esque tie-dye clothing. The place reeked of pot and people were doing lines of cocaine right off the tables. Slow reggae music pulsed in the background and EVERYONE stopped what they were doing to look at Adam and I: probably the only white-skinned, blue-eyed people to ever step foot through the front doors.  Anton pushed us through the crowd and introduced us to the owner. He asked him to watch out for us if we ever came in here again without him. The owner nodded and then Anton turned to us and in a very strict voice said “Don’t you EVER come back in this place alone! It’s dangerous!” and with that he dragged us right back out of the bar. Which we were more than happy about, feeling just a little out of place in there.

“Okay, should we dance?” Anton asked.

“Yes, let’s see the parade!”

So after grabbing a drink at his cousin’s kiosk and stopping to body paint his two little nieces, we trekked to the parade route. I’m not exaggerating when I say there were probably a million people dancing in the street that night. Music blared, people danced and sang along to songs I’d never heard of before as their favourite bands moved slowly along in large floats. Sorry, I’m not going to fully describe the parade until we get to the next day’s events.  We did follow some trucks for a while, pushed through the hoards of people, nearly got tear gassed trying to get through an alley and eventually walked home.

By 3AM my head was spinning with English, Portuguese and Spanish all at once. I could no longer understand simple phrases and was incapable of translating to Adam anymore. We’d been up for 21 hours on little sleep, and the craziness of the unexpected night was overwhelming. We called it a night early, according to Carnaval standards, and went to bed.

Sao Paulo: Barzinos and Caipirinhas!

The short three days we spent in Sao Paulo were amazing, thanks to the generosity of my wonderful friends, Lilian and Raf. We spent Friday in zombie mode after our sleepless bus ride from Blumenau. By the afternoon, we got our bearings in the Vila Mariana and checked out a local mall for a couple hours. Sao Paulo is MASSIVE, and that is a huge understatement. It is the business district of Brazil and has a population of 20 million people (three times the size of Rio). The city buildings stretch literally as far as the eye can see, and traffic is horrendous 24/7. The metro system is, fortunately, very excellent. 2nd in the world to Shanghai, Sao Paulo’s metro moves 6 million people each day through it’s various line (As Adam pointed out, that is the equivalent of Canada’s entire population in less than a week). Commuting to work in the city sounds like a nightmare. People have up to 2 or 3 hours of commuting EACH WAY to get to their jobs (i.e. Lilian), and even a very short distance makes for a tedious journey (Raf takes a quick 40 minutes to get to work… And lives 7km away).  It’s work, work, work for most Brazilians from Monday to Friday: then the parties start!

Lilian picked us up Friday night and took us out on the town. We headed to the lively Vila Madalena neighborhood where the streets are lined with Barzinos, or “little pubs,” that are EVERYWHERE in Brazil. We found a nice one that had a live Samba band and sat down for a drink and some food. Everyone but Adam and I knew the lyrics to each and every song.  People of all ages would get up by their tables to dance and sing along! Lilian even taught us a few moves and we danced along with the locals! We sipped on icy beers and I had a kiwi caipirinha, thanks to Panos’ recommendation, that was out of this world!  It was great to see the lively atmosphere of Sao Paulo on a Friday night! Everyone clearly loves to party here and the weekend is definitely the time to let loose. Bars here close well into the morning, but we went home at a very early 2AM, because we had still been awake since the morning we woke in Blumenau.

The next day, after another terrible sleep for both of us, we went to explore the city. We walked down Franca Pinto Street and found a large farmers market that was full of fresh fruits, vegetables, cheeses, meats and fish that continued for blocks! At the end of the market was one of Sao Paulo’s largest parks. The place was filled with families, couples, people running, biking, rollerblading and picnicking all over the place! There were a number of museums – one of which we explored that was a very strange modern art museum full of creepy statues and paintings all displayed on metal scaffolds. Giant video screens hung in each one of the scaffolds and had a film of each of the artists talking, I’m assuming about their collection, but we didn’t understand any of the language so we were very lost.

After the park, we headed out on the metro to a place where they were offering free walking tours of the city. We were only 2 of 4 people that spoke English on the tour, and so the whole thing was done in Portuguese (although the guide was nice enough to come up after and give us a very brief summary about what she was talking about). Either way, we had a nice time exploring the Luz district, saw the Parque do Luz, and walked through another Brazilian museum for a half hour.

Later that evening we met up with my friend Raf and went for pizza. Not just any pizza, mind you, but the best pizza IN THE WORLD. They say that Sao Paulo makes the best pizza on Earth, so much so that Italians come here and get jealous. We went to one of the most renowned and oldest pizza parlors in all of Sao Paulo. The place was a brothel turned pizza joint, but you would never know it. By the time we arrived, the place was full and Raf already had our names on the list. The place was SUPER classy and all of a sudden I felt a little under dressed in my backpacker outfits! Thankfully, they let us in anyways. Raf did all the ordering, as we were once again lost with the Portuguese menu, and the place looked a little too nice for me to whip out our Portuguese/English dictionary that I have embarrassingly done on so many previous occasions. We started with Antarctica beer and the most amazing Bruchetta! Then came our first pizza! The thing about Brazilian pizza is that it has a thin but perfectly crispy crust to it and it’s extra cheesy!! Unfortunately, there’s no way for me to really describe what’s so awesome about it… You’ll just have to come down yourself. But I promise you; it is out of this world! We also tried one with a vegetable called palmito on it. At first I heard there was no English translation for this word.  I didn’t think I had seen it before, until finally I saw a street vendor selling it whole.  “Palmitos” are Palm Hearts! They are white and crunchy and a PERFECT addition to pizza! All future South American pizzas will be sure to have this on it!  We enjoyed our pizza dinner so much that we actually refuse to eat pizza for a while so as not to be disappointed!

After dinner, Raf took us on a whirlwind nightlife tour of Sao Paulo. We drove down Augusta street, which is Sao Paulo’s equivalent of Vancouver’s Granville street, but on steroids! People from all walks of life were out and about on a Saturday night! People were lined up for concerts, nightclubs, drinking beer in the street, gathered in groups, relaxing in Barzinos! There were the classy groups, punks, skater kids, the club crews, people listening to electro music, and others to traditional Samba. This place was the happening area of town for sure! Raf said that nightclubs could be up to $CAD30+ for cover, and they stay open until 7am. We drove down the street for about 15 to 20 minutes and didn’t get remotely close to the end. The street continues for block after block and goes straight down to the centro of Sao Paulo. We decided to head to a quieter neighborhood to catch up over some good beers. Raf took us to a pub in the Vila Mariana district that served hundreds of types of beer imported from around the world (a rare find in Brazil, where they usually offer the same 3 or 4 types of lagers). There we tried a delicious beverage that I cannot, for the life of me, remember the name of.

After the pub, Raf invited us back to his apartment for some real Brazilian booze. His apartment is right in the middle of Sao Paulo and is GEORGEOUS! An elevator that takes him directly to his front door, the apartment is the entire 15th floor and wraps around in a giant circular shape. His balcony is massive and looks out onto the endless concrete buildings that make Sao Paulo. The city is beautiful at night! The three of us sat outside, sharing stories and taking shots of cachaca well into the night. Raf offered to take us to a football match the next day, but we already have plans with Lilian’s family. Oh how I wish we had longer to spend in Sao Paulo!

For weeks now, we have been at a loss for what to do on Sundays. Sunday’s in South America are “taken very seriously” as many have told us. The cities shut down; everyone leaves the bustle of urban life, and spends the day eating good food with their families. As a backpacker, this is slightly depressing. We are left with nothing to do, and missing our families back home. This past Sunday, however, Lilian kindly invited Adam and I to join her and her family, at their country home, for a swim in the pool, a “churrasco” BBQ, and a first-hand look into how Brazilians spend their Sunday. 
So we got up bright and early Sunday morning and headed out of the city center to Lilian’s family’s place. Her family is ADORABLE! We met one of her sisters, her parents and her grandmother at the house and they immediately offered us anything we could want: breakfast, drinks, seats etc. Her parents don’t speak any English (apart from her father who throws out the occasional English word to impress us) but Lilian is a fantastic translator, and I found out later her father understands Spanish, so we are able to small talk when Lilian is gone. 
We drove the hour and a half or so out of the city to their home, and it was perfect! On a hilltop with a beautiful view of rolling hills, their house is a quaint little villa with a couple large BBQ pits and an outdoor pool. Hammocks were hung on the front porch for siesta time, lawn chairs on the grass, and 4 different puppies happily greeted us as we came through the gate! The backyard had a big vegetable garden with lettuce, fields of corn, lychee trees, mango groves, and fruits we’ve never even heard of before!

We hadn’t been at the house for more than five minutes before we were handed icy beers, a caipirinha, and the BBQ was turned on. We met Lilian’s aunt at the house as well, who brought more delicious food to the gathering. Within no time, Lilian’s father was bringing platters of meat to the table. Juicy sliced steaks and chicken wings cooked to perfection. When we moved inside, another plate was placed in front of us.  When it looked like our plate was getting low, another one appeared, overflowing with food (The same rule applied for cold beers). By the time salad and rice was brought out we were stuffed!

The caipirinhas were fantastic! We asked Lilians father to show us how to properly make them so we could try on our own later. His special formula was one thinly sliced lime, muddled at the bottom of a glass, half a lime squeezed for juice, a couple heaps of sugar, fill the glass with cachaca (39% alc) but leave a little room to water it down… with VODKA. Apparently this makes the drink smoother. No wonder we were feeling the booze after only one drink each! It probably had 5 shots of straight alcohol in it! But man were they tasty!  After lunch everyone had a siesta while Adam and I played in the pool. We had a big inter-tube that left us more entertained than a child with an oversized box. After a couple hours in the pool we sat down to a game of cards. We taught Lilian and her dad how to play golf, and even with the language barrier we had a blast!

At the end of the afternoon, Lilian’s parents headed out on their motorcycle for home, we joined them shortly afterwards in Lilian’s car. The day was absolutely wonderful and Lilian’s family was more than hospitable to us! They said next time we come to Sao Paulo we will have to stay at their home, and we can visit their beach home on the next trip (how luxurious are these people!?). It was so great to finally get to experience a Brazilian Sunday.  The tradition of family and food first is something I wish we had more of in Canada. It was definitely a perfect way to spend our last night in Sao Paulo!